Sunday, March 12, 2006

I don't hate the WBC

I like the idea of international competition in baseball. I'm not a serious soccer fan, but I do follow it somewhat and enjoy its co-mingling of professional and international events. The best players in the world all play both for club and for country. While there may not be enough truly baseball-playing countries to populate a full tournament just yet, it's getting pretty close.

A lot of the criticism of the WBC has been to the effect that MLB's motivations for promoting the sport internationally are purely mercenary. This is less important to me that the viability of the tournament itself. It needs to achieve a certain legitimacy that it won't have until it gets full participation from the best players. Gary Sheffield expressed his concerns with the WBC quite succinctly: "My season is when I get paid." Others who have taken a pass have cited the timing as the sticking point, since most MLB players, especially pitchers, are just rounding back into shape in early March. They usually suggest "like, maybe a week around the All-Star break or something like that." Then there is the MLB team resistance, as most vociferously expressed by the New York Yankees: why should we let our players risk injury by playing for another team?

I don't see why the players shouldn't get compensated for playing for their national team. And as for the timing, it seems to me that no matter where you put it on the calendar, it's going to be right before or right after or right in the middle of the MLB season, each of which has its disadvantages. That is really a part of the trickiest issue, which is the extent to which extending the players' effective season any further will take an unacceptable toll on their durability and royally screw their employers.

To put things in terms more directly relevant to this blog: I'd be sweating bullets right now if Pedro Martinez were pitching for the DR. It wouldn't be fun for me. I'd just be hoping he gets shelled on five or six misplaced fastballs and put on ice. Of course, unlike most people in my neighborhood, I'm not Dominican. It would be really unfortunate to lose one of your team's best players during international competition, but is the risk so great that it should preclude the game from holding the WBC even on a quadrennial basis? As you may have been able to discern, my answer would be no.

The commentary on the WBC has been so promotional as to detract from the experience of watching the games. Rather than spending much time with analysis of the teams' or players' strengths and weaknesses, the announcers are mostly concerned with the mindblowing success of the event. They want viewers at home to know just how "into it" the players and the spectators are. This is by most accounts true, but at least during the games more attention should be given to the actual sport than the WBC as such.

Despite its risks and shortcomings, I think it's a good idea that will take some time to be accepted as a regular part of baseball. Once it does, I think it will be much looked-forward to, and we won't need to be relentlessly sold on what a good idea it is. Because if you look at the lineups (or potential lineups) of the Venezuelan, Dominican, Puerto Rican, Japanese and American teams, there's no reason why they can't play a tourney every once in a while.